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LETTER: A call for better use of the former Holiday Inn site

The Peer Advisory Committee of the Wellington Guelph Drug Strategy disappointed the former Holiday Inn isn't going to be used to help provide affordable housing
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GuelphToday received the following letter from the Peer Advisory Committee of the Wellington Guelph Drug Strategy regarding converting the Holiday Inn into student housing:

To the editor,

This letter has been written by the Peer Advisory Committee of the Wellington Guelph Drug Strategy, which is comprised of people with lived/living experience of substance use challenges. Many of us have experienced or are experiencing precarious housing and or homelessness. Many of our community members are currently living rough, outside or in the shelter system.

It is for these reasons that we felt it pertinent that our committee respond to the recent proposal to convert the Holiday Inn on Scottsdale into student housing without considering alternative uses for this housing resource. We feel this proposal expresses a lack of consideration for the well-being of our communities most vulnerable people – those living without housing during winter months, while the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve and escalate.

Guelph tracks its homeless population by conducting a Point-In-Time (PIT) count, a process designed to take a snapshot of the circumstances of homeless individuals within our community. While this program is unable to produce entirely accurate data, it gives us a general idea of the number of people who have been failed by our systems. The last published PIT (2018) identified 325 homeless people in Guelph.

In Guelph, there are many dedicated student housing properties and only one shelter organization for adult homeless individuals and one for youth – both of which have a total of about 75 beds at maximum capacity, assuming that COVID protocols have not reduced the number of individuals who can be housed in a congregate setting. We wonder whether additional student housing accurately reflects our community's housing needs?

To further shine light on the experiences of those without housing, it is important to understand that the waitlist for a Wellington County Housing accommodation is years long. Community members are now using the emergency and short-term shelter systems as a housing system, knowing that there will be no available housing available to them even after a shelter stay.

The shelter systems are not designed to support individuals for long-term accommodations. Individuals can be banned or trespassed for being unable to comply with short-term policies and procedures within the reality of a long-term stay. Affordable housing options on the private market in Guelph are extremely limited for those living on social assistance.

The lack of housing options often forces individuals to live outside. Arriving at this reality impacts one’s entire being in ways many will never know. Fear, stress, precarity and survival become all consuming. Not only do these individuals experience increased risk of fatality during the winter months due to harsh weather conditions, we are now seeing replications of other urban centres' responses to encampments in the way of forcible removal.

When a community member calls the city out of concern for the individuals living outside, this call is met by bylaw officers being sent to the encampment and giving residents 48 hours to relocate with all of their property. Forty eight hours, with a multi-year wait list for housing, only 27 first-come, first-served adult emergency shelter beds and hundreds of people in the same situation. We wonder how this aligns with people’s idea of Guelph as a compassionate community. Does this seem safe? Equitable? Strategic?

The facilities at the Holiday Inn on Scottsdale could easily be converted to affordable housing. The additional spaces in the hotel could be used for food/medical/social service programs to provide individuals with relevant access to overall wellness. Council member Phil Allt is quoted in GuelphToday as saying “This would make perfect supportive housing.” We hope to continue this conversation.

We know this would require work, funding and organization, but there are many examples to pull from for guidance.

Wilfrid Laurier University cooperated with Waterloo Region and local social service providers to develop emergency housing in the Waterloo Campus’ Cooperative Residence building at the beginning of the pandemic, stating “Laurier is supportive of the ongoing efforts of the Region, the City of Waterloo, local social service agencies and other levels of government to provide housing and services to community members who need extra support. As this project proceeds, Laurier is committed to working with the Region of Waterloo, the Waterloo Region Police Service, the City of Waterloo, the Working Centre and the University of Waterloo to meet ongoing needs, address any concerns and to support positive outcomes for both the project and our university community.”

As owner of this property on Scottsdale, we wonder if the University of Guelph could take a similar position to meet the needs of our own community’s most vulnerable? As Guelph residents, are we prepared to accept our current housing services as adequate? If we don’t take action now, how do we expect the affordable housing situation to get better?

We encourage the City of Guelph and the University of Guelph to reconsider the direction they have taken and to step up for the betterment of community’s safety and well-being. We encourage anyone who would like to see more options for creative affordable housing to call or email their city councilors and request reconsideration of the Scottsdale site, and other future project’s ability to be used to meet critical local housing needs. 

We can do better by choosing to take the needs of all our community members into account.

The Peer Advisory Committee of the Wellington Guelph Drug Strategy